Carbon generally isn’t considered a good thing. And unless it’s an inspired synonym for gray, it certainly isn’t stylish. But a new brand has managed to take greenhouse gas and transform it into accessories, making a case that carbon can be not only desirable but also chic. The fruit of 17 years of research and development, this game-changing technology is upping the ante on what it means for fashion to be environmentally friendly.
Covalent, which launched in October, is the Southern California-based brand that’s the first to put this innovative technology into tangible, wearable products. The debut collection of eyewear, bags and non-leather leather goods is made primarily from carbon dioxide that otherwise would have existed in the air and contributed to global warming. Yes, that stuff that scientists and policymakers around the world are urgently trying to stifle could be your next pair of shades.
If that sounds crazy, it’s because it kind of is. Covalent is literally making accessories out of thin air. How does greenhouse gas become a cardholder? It took Mark Herrema and Kenton Kimmel, the brand’s CEO and chief technology officer, respectively, almost two decades to make it work. Friends since childhood, Herrema called up Kimmel one day when they were both in college to discuss an article he’d read about carbon emissions.
“I said ‘Hey, I think there’s another path here,’” Herrema recalls. “Instead of taxing carbon or talking about burying it, what if we could turn it into beautiful things? We thought it would be a relatively straightforward path.”
That was 2003. While still in college, at Princeton and Northwestern, the friends spent their summers doing research. At one point, they were working as a hotel bellhop and valet by day and toiling away in a lab by night. They discovered microorganisms that naturally exist in the ocean and consume greenhouse gas as a food source. You know how trees absorb greenhouse gases? These little suckers feast on it. Herrema and Kimmel were able to transplant these microorganisms to a lab and essentially farm the byproduct of their carbon consumption. And that is the foundation of AirCarbon, their groundbreaking new material.
Having reached that milestone, the next step was figuring out what to do with this novel material. In its raw form, AirCarbon is a powder that can be melted and transformed into any number of things. Herrema tells us that fashion was one of the first categories they’d hoped to get into—both because it is something so personal (unlike, say, biomedical supplies) and because it’s an industry that’s notorious for environmental harm. Discussing the rise of sustainable fashion—those well-meaning but often nebulous initiatives like recycled cashmere and eco-cotton—Herrema points out that Covalent is taking a different tack.
“It’s all sort of less bad, but never really going into the improvement side of the column,” he says of fashion’s greenification efforts. On the other hand, Covalent is making “products that are actually removing carbon from the air. Instead of just doing less bad, it’s actually doing net good.”
But what exactly is that “good”? It’s one of the most frustratingly vague parts of sustainable fashion: there’s little-to-no connecting of the dots between the product one buys and how it helps or hurts the environment. To provide the utmost transparency, Covalent spent two years working with IBM to develop blockchain technology that gives consumers a comprehensive look at the carbon footprint of the specific product they’ve purchased. Each item in the collection is marked with a unique timestamp identifying when it was made, down to the second. By typing that sequence of numbers into Covalent’s website, one can trace the product’s lifecycle and get an exact, quantifiable measure of how much carbon that product removed from the environment (certified by a third party, so it’s not just a schtick). They are effectively wearable carbon offsets.
The designs are sleek and minimal—a fitting aesthetic for a (hopefully) fossil fuel-free future. The silhouettes are all familiar, timeless, just rendered in a cutting-edge material. Having test-driven a cardholder and pair of glasses myself, I was impressed by how lightweight the glasses were without feeling flimsy. Furnished with Barberini lenses and crafted in Italy, the eyewear is on par with any competitor. The AirCarbon leather isn’t quite as convincing. Perhaps this writer is a calfskin snob, but I don’t think one could easily mistake the leather alternative with the real thing. But, as a material unto itself, AirCarbon leather is pleasingly smooth with an attractive matte finish. As far as eco-fashion goes, Covalent’s wares are a big step up from their antecedents.
Having launched with a range of several eyewear styles, totes, clutches, wallets and tech cases, Covalent plans to continue building out its offering with new colors, textures and categories. But Herrema says the brand isn’t just looking to stay in its own lane, noting collaborations that are in the works and hopes to make AirCarbon a mainstay material in fashion at large. “We think it’s really exciting to have a material that no one has ever experienced before,” he says, noting that AirCarbon’s composition is an apt metaphor for our times. “If there’s something beautiful in greenhouse gas, that shows there’s probably some good in everything.”